Children and television advertising

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    and televisionadvertising

    A critical study ofinternational research

    concerning the effects ofTV-commercials on children

    Report 1994/95:8



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    Second edition 2000First edition 1994

    Swedish Consumer Agency, 1994ISBN 91-7398-456-8Layout: Lena Blsj

    Translation: InterverbumPrinted at Lenanders Tryckeri, Kalmar, 2000

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    FOREWORDFOR SOME YEARS now, television advertising has been an established form of advertising in

    Sweden, and IV advertising reaches children too. They watch commercials intended for adults

    and they watch commercials aimed at children on the satellite channel TV3.

    BUT ADVERTISING aimed at children is not allowed on Swedish terrestrial television. The

    ban is laid down in Swedens broadcasting legislation with the following wording: A

    commercial with advertising that is broadcast during commercial breaks on the television mustnot have the purpose of attracting the attention of children under 12 years of age.

    THE BAN APPLIES in practice toTV4, which can now be viewed in 98% of Swedish homes

    and which is so far our only terrestrial commercial TV channel.

    THE REASON for the ban is not hard to understand. Children are children; they are trusting

    and naive. The techniques at the disposal of TV advertising carry considerable impact. Thegripping sequences of images in TV commercials reach large numbers of children at the same

    time and so can create a stronger pressure to buy.

    THE GROUND RULES for advertising laid down by the International Chamber of Trade

    include special rules concerning children. These rules were considered to be necessary because

    children lack experience and are not always able to identify advertising or to perceive it as

    pressure to buy.

    SO WHEN a product and its trademark are presented on theTV in the form ofashortcartoon

    with an exciting story line it is not easy for children to be critical or even to identify the purpose

    of the amusing cartoon.

    TV COMMERCIALS alongside childrens programs must today be considered the most

    effective form of advertising when it comes to reaching large groups of children. Consequently,

    powerful financial interests are seeking to have the ban on advertising to children on terrestrial

    Swedish TV removed. Indignant voices demand proof that TV advertising for children isharmful. Sometimes reference is made to research that is claimed to prove the opposite,

    namely that advertising for children is a good thing.

    WHAT DOES RESEARCH in the field have to say on the subject? We asked sociologist

    Erling Bjurstrm to study and evaluate international research on children and TV advertising,its influence and its effects. This does not mean that we want to maintain that research results

    are of crucial significance for decision makers where TV advertising for children is concerned,but research does provide us with greater knowledge of the field as a whole. An evaluation of

    the research done and referred to can also tell us about the quality of the research.

    HOWEVER, the question of children as a target group for TV advertising must be seen as

    a question of ethics and morality, a question that has to do with our view of children and

    childrens needs in our society.

    WHO NEEDS advertising for children? Children? Parents? Companies? The owners of TV

    channels? Who benefits by it? And whose needs should we put first?

    The National Swedish Board for Consumer Policies

    October 1994

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    Chapter 1

    Chapter 2


    Research into advertising 7

    Drawing conclusions from research 8

    Effects research 10

    Cause and effect 13

    Media and advertising research 14

    TV advertising and children 18


    The ability of advertising to attract childrens attention

    Childrens ability to distinguish between advertising and programmes

    Childrens ability to understand the purpose of advertising

    Childrens interpretations of TV advertising

    The influence and effects of advertising

    The influence of TV commercials on childrens purchasing

    behaviour and the demand for goods and products

    Values and attitudes






    Consumption ideology and materialism

    Eating habits and nutritional awareness

    Alcohol and tobacco

    Gender roles and ethnic differencesViolence

    Consumer socialisation - knowledge and expertise

    Short-term and long-term effects











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    THE EFFECTS OFADVERTISINGre we influenced by advertising? Does it make us buy things we dont really

    need or even want? Does it affect our needs, wishes, standards and values?

    Questions of this type are often among those considered most urgently in

    need of an answer when advertising is discussed. When we spontaneously try to answer

    these questions we are inclined to take ourselves as the starting point. And, in my

    experience, the answers tend to vary between categorical denial that we are influenced

    by advertising and a certain degree of doubt. The more or less categorical answers

    come from people who have taken up a position eitherfororagainstadvertising. But

    a certain element of doubt pervades their answers too.

    In many contexts, proponents of the advertising sector have an interest in toning down

    the influence andpossible effects of advertising. They oftenpresent it as an innocuous

    aspect of daily life, while at the same time they depend on their clients faith in the

    ability of advertising to attract the attention of potential customers and influence them.

    Similarly, opponents and critics of advertising often exaggerate the ability of adverti-sing to influence us, while their very existence is evidence of relatively widespread

    scepticism and even resistance towards it. So in the debate about the effects of

    advertising, the arguments used bothforand against it are to some extent contradictory

    and paradoxical.

    The contradictory and paradoxical aspects are easy to understand if we place the

    argumentsfor and against advertising in relation to each other. Opponents and critics

    of advertising constantly emphasise its negative effects, whilst those in favour of it

    stress itspositiveeffects. In the discussion of the ability of advertising to influence us,the negative is opposed to the positive. The pro arguments of one side are constantly

    coloured by the contra arguments of the other side and vice versa.

    The greater the ability For the advertising sector, arguments which maintain that adverti-

    of advertising to sing does influence us often cut both ways. The advertising sector is

    influence us, the of course dependent on these arguments in relation to its clients, but

    greater, of course, is the in the debate about the negative effects of advertising they are

    likelihood that it willsomething of a trap. The greater the ability of advertising to influence

    have negative effects?

    us, thegreater, of course, is the likelihood that it will have negative

    effects. On the other hand, the argument that advertising onlyinfluences us to a very small extent or not at all is open to the counter-

    argument that it is superfluous or harmful. In brief, why should companies spend huge

    resources and sums on something that has no effect?

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    The arguments for and against the effect of advertising play an important part for both

    the proponents and the opponents of advertising, but in different ways. The argument

    that we are nut influenced at allby advertising is open to the counter-argument that it

    can hardly have eitherpositive ornegative effects. In many cases both those who arefor and those who are against advertising agree that advertising influences us, while

    disagreeing about the extent to which this influence is positive ornegative. But thearguments about the positive and negative effects often swing between a variety of

    contexts. For example, those in favour of advertising frequently highlight its positive

    effects for the economy, whilst its opponents often maintain that it makes us buy

    unnecessary things or conveys and reinforces unacceptable standards and values.

    In the advertising debate, reference is often made to research results to underline or

    strengthen various arguments. It is often assumed that research can confirm or refute

    the arguments that are put forward in the debate. However, the field that can be defined

    as research into advertising1

    gives hardly any unambiguous answers on more generalquestions about the influence or effects of advertising. In addition, it is extremely

    difficult to get an overview of the research that has been done in this field. It is unlikely

    that even the majority of researchers involved in this type of research have an overview

    of more than limited parts of it.

    There often seems to be a great need for information about and an overview of the

    research that has been done into the influence and effects of advertising. The gap

    between believing and knowing is frequently evident when advertising is discussed

    publicly. For example, in debates in which I have myself taken part in recent years, the

    so-called Coca-Cola experiment has been cited as an argument showing that research

    has demonstrated that advertising affects us unconsciously. According to the market

    researcher who did this experiment in the late 195Os, it was possible to influence sales

    of Coca-Cola and popcorn by inserting, in the newsreels that preceded the feature film

    in American cinemas, pictures that could not be perceived consciously, with the

    message Drink Coca-Cola and Eat popcorn. The fact that many people cite this

    experiment, which, according to available information, was invented, and which

    proved impossible to repeat under controlled conditions, as evidence for the sublimi-


    effects of advertising, demonstrates more clearly perhaps than anything else theneed for information about the results of research into advertising.

    lInthis context, research

    object of its investigations.

    into advertising means all research that in any sense has advertising as the

    2 Theword subliminal refers to whatever is below the level or threshold of consciousness. According tocompilations of scientific studies of subliminal perception there are no results to confirm that it is possible

    to influence peoples actions, behaviour or motivation in the way described in the Coca-Cola experi-

    ment (Moors 1982; Rundkvist 1988; Goldstein 1992). The sociologist Robert Goldmann (1992 p 1) is

    of the opinion that the idea that advertising can subliminally seduce us contributes only to makingdiscussions of advertising frivolous, since it gives an entirely unrealistic picture of the ability of

    advertising to affect us. The attempts of the advertising sector to influence us subliminally have been

    described above all in popular books such as Vance Packards The Hidden Persuaders (198 1) and WilsonBryan Keys Subliminal Seduction (1974) and Media Sexploitation (1976). I n thesebooks, the authorsgive plenty of examples to show that hidden messages occur in advertising, but do not discuss at all the

    question whether these messages have any effect; instead they tacitly assume that they have).

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    Research into advertising

    The field of research into advertising differs in may ways from other fields of research

    in the social andbehavioural sciences . This is mainly due to thepowerful financial and

    political interests that are linked to advertising. Research into advertising is divided

    into public and non-public (ie confidential) research. The former takes place mainlyat universities and is financed from public funds by government bodies and research

    councils; the latter is mainly conducted at private market research institutes which are

    either a part of or are associated with the advertising sector. Universities also carry out

    market research or various research projects for private clients, who have sole rights

    to the results.

    The first large private market research institutes were set up in the USA in the 1920s

    and 1930s. To begin with they concentrated mainly on surveying new markets for

    various products and evaluating the impact of the advertising message, but this was

    gradually extended to include more detailed surveys of the values and lifestyle patterns

    of different groups of consumers, both actual and potential (Mattelart 1991 p 144 et

    seq). Over the past thirty years the research of the largest multinational market research

    institutes has grown to include new techniques - the use of electronic equipment to

    record the amount of time different individuals and groups spend watching TV

    advertising, for instance - and transnational or multi-national research programmes

    (known as multicountry research) (ibid.p 151).

    Since research conducted by private research institutes is not public, it is impossible

    to comment on its results, its quality or its reliability. In general, however, it is a matterofapplied research with the aim ofpredicting the effects of various advertising and

    marketing campaigns rather than understanding orexplaining why they have these


    Public research into advertising, that is, research done at universities and financed from

    public funds, has developed over a far shorter time than confidential or non-public

    research, which is linked to various private market research institutes.

    Not until the early 1970s was there any extensive independent

    research into the influence and effects of advertising. Right from the

    outset, this research was mainly focused on the influence and effects

    of TV advertising on children and to some extent on young teenagers.

    Of course, only public

    research in to advertisingcan be regarded as

    independent, in the sense

    that it is not controlled

    by the advertising sector

    or the financial interests

    Of course, only public research into advertising can be regarded as

    independent, in the sense that it is not controlled by the advertising

    sector or the financial interests of its clients. The question that I shall

    try to answer within the relatively limited scope of this survey is toof its clients. what extent this research answers questions about the influence and

    effect of advertising. The purpose of the survey is to present, as

    simply as possible, important research results about the influence and effects ofadvertising and the conclusions that can be drawn from them. They make no claim to

    be comprehensive. As I have already mentioned, it is practically impossible nowadays

    to obtain a complete overview of the research that has been done into the influence and

    effects of advertising. Consequently, the choice of research results presented here

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